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Thursday, 28 March 2013

NUS Women's Campaign Conference: A Summary

By Rose Walker

Earlier this month, I attended NUS Women's Campaign conference for the first time. Within this piece, I will attempt to summarise two days that have had a huge impact on me; both personally, and as an activist. 

On 5 and 6 March 2013, delegates from students’ unions across the UK gathered in York to decide on the future of the NUS Women’s Campaign. Around 150 delegates decided policy for the Women’s Campaign, elected the NUS Women’s Officer and Women’s Committee, and explored key areas of the campaign’s work. From RHUL, myself, Victoria Butcher, Susuana Antubam and Hodan Elmo were all elected as delegates. 

Fuelled by a fantastic complimentary buffet breakfast (I'm tempted to encourage you all to go just for the refreshments) we threw ourselves into the first days events.  Women’s Officer Kelley Temple kicked off day one with a passionate opening speech about the context that we’re currently working in; she referred to the cuts to public services which are disproportionately affecting women, and how important it is for us to work within an intersectional campaign. 

After Kelley’s opening remarks, she introduced Ailsa Tweedie, who is a student carer. Ailsa recounted her own experiences as a carer in education, and reminded delegates how important it is for the Women’s Campaign to prioritise work on supporting student carers - the 'Fair to Care' campaign has been a key part of the Women’s Campaign’s work this year. Listening to Ailsa's experiences was extremely moving - I am in huge favour of using personal stories to emphasise the reality of general issues. Everybody knows that cuts affect members of society, but many people have no idea of the harsh reality they create. 

Throughout the two days, delegates debated and voted on motions. When motions pass, they become policy, and inform the work of the campaign over the next year. Highlights of these motions for me included: 'Consent in the curriculum' - this motion calls for the Women’s Campaign to work with specialist groups to put together a comprehensive list of what should be included in education regarding consent and rape culture. 'Sanitary products' - there was an interesting discussion about the tax on sanitary products, and conference resolved to work with NUS Services to absorb (heh) the tax levied on these products. 'Importance of women’s officers' - delegates agreed on the importance of having women’s officers on campuses, and passed a motion to campaign for a women’s officer in every union. Even more exciting, was that SURHUL's 'Motion Against Anti-Choice Harassment outside Abortion Clinics and on Campuses' passed unanimously, after a brilliant proposing speech by Susuana.  Conference also passed an emergency motion on tackling transmisogyny in our movement and the media - an issue that has become even more relavant in the past week, following the tragic death of Lucy Meadows as a result of the Daily Mails vilification of her.

First day highlights also included the committee's report on what the campaign has worked on over the past year and election of next years committee. The evening also brought some hugely enjoyable moments (dinner was great) but the award ceremony that accompanied it was also fantastic - namely because our wonderful Susuana won Inspirational Woman Student of the Year, and Royal Holloway Students’ Union won Campaign of the Year for Miss Representation! 

As well as the elections and motions debates, day two was full of passionate plenary sessions and workshops. Three inspirational speakers addressed conference on women’s access to abortion, in a session on fighting for the right to choose. Darinka Aleksic from Abortion Rights referenced the case of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland who died after being denied access to an abortion, and went on to tell delegates that over 50,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions. Aisling Gallagher, the women’s officer from NUS-USI (the student movement in Northern Ireland)  spoke next about the complete lack of support for the pro-choice movement in Ireland. Kelly McBride, the president of the University of Sussex Students’ Union finished by explaining how she fought to keep the anti-choice organisation, Abort 67 off her campus. She gave delegates advice about how to tackle similar problems on their own campuses - I felt extremely heartened to hear of a successful fight-back against these groups, and made careful note of the advice given. 

A diverse panel came together on day two to talk about the need for an intersectional feminism - Hannah Paterson, NUS disabled students’ officer spoke first. Hannah took the case of Oscar Pistorius, and the treatment of disabled people in the media, and linked it with the treatment of Reeva Steenkamp to give a perfect example for the need for Intersectionality. Sarah Kerton, LGBT committee (women’s place) rep talked about how the LGBT campaign is essentially already an intersectional campaign in itself. Maryam Saghir, black students’ committee (LGBT women’s place) rep explained how intersectionality should be instinctive for us. All forms of bigotry and intolerance are on a par with one another, as they’re all forms of injustice. 

The feeling one experiences when amongst people who share similar ideas, values and dreams is unlike any other - the realisation that you are sharing the company and space with others who are passionate about the same issues as you is empowering, inspiring and comforting, all at once. 
For me, this feeling came as conference presented recent research on 'Lad Culture' and its detrimental impact on university campus life (the research can be found here:

In 2010 NUS published the ‘Hidden Marks’ report which produced the staggering statistic that 68 per cent of respondents had been the victim of one or more kinds of sexual harassment on campus during their time as a student. ‘That’s What She Said’ builds on this revelation with an exploration of the depth of feeling surrounding the phenomenon of ‘lad culture’ and how this can facilitate negative student experiences. As such, the research contains analysis of data from interviews and focus groups with 40 women students from England and Scotland, exploring how ‘lad culture’ affects every area of student life to a greater or lesser degree.

When presented with specificities within the report such as horror stories about society's initiations, male students harassing women on nights out and lecturers not calling out sexist comments in classes, nearly every woman present in the room responded in the same way, and a resounding ripple of groans, rolled eyes and shaken heads reverberated throughout the room. Whilst the common knowledge that so many of us have been directly affected by this culture was sickening, it was also inspiring. It made me realise that however isolated incidents seem when a man grabs me or one of my friends when on nights out in Windsor, we are not alone. By attending these type of events, by listening to what NUS Women's Committee is doing about it, we realise that this pandemic of cultural flaws can be held up as unacceptable, and dealt with accordingly. 

For anyone unsure of whether they identify as a feminist, an activist, or even just someone who's fed up of being groped in clubs, I would urge you to get involved anyway you can. I would encourage any self-defining woman, whether a member of this society or not, to consider running for a delegation place at next years NUS Women's Conference. Attending conference was a fantastic way for me to reaffirm my feelings about activism, and the complimentary biscuits really were the icing on the fem-cake. 

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